Nonprofit Is Teaching Compassion Locally and Globally

Adventures in Caring Foundation (AiC) is pioneering the education of the heart. For 30 years the AiC team has taught the art and practice of compassion—as a skill that restores well-being and promotes healing. Their work is now recognized globally.

Adventures in Caring is based in Santa Barbara and despite its small size it is having a big impact. Founded by Karen Fox in 1984, the nonprofit is most famous for its Raggedy Ann and Andy volunteers who visit local nursing homes and hospitals to lift the spirits of patients. What is less well known is who is under those wigs, what they discovered, and how far their influence has spread.

Many people still think that compassion cannot be taught—considering it a personality trait that’s either there or not. Others think of compassion as a philosophy or a feeling. Adventures in Caring has taken it a step further: compassion as a verb—the practical skill of getting it across to a person who is sick or injured so that they realize that you care. Simon Fox, Executive Director, says “That’s when the magic happens—when the other person gets it. That’s when you see their body language change, their vital signs improve, and their outlook becomes more hopeful.” He says this is the secret of all great nurses, physicians, and health care practitioners—they know the language of healing that lifts the spirits, restores well-being, and inspires the will to heal.

"I applaud your efforts to teach volunteers how to interact with people who are suffering… I am sharing your work with my staff."

Colin Powell, General

This is what the Adventures in Caring team has decoded and now teaches to undergraduate students from the University of California–Santa Barbara who are studying to become doctors, nurses, and allied health professionals. They learn this art through a one-year service-learning internship. After in-depth training they visit the residents in a nursing home or the patients on a hospital unit on a weekly basis for a school year, practicing the art of listening carefully, taking an interest in lives, not just bodies, and building the emotional maturity to create meaningful connections with those who are suffering. By reflecting in writing on what happened in each interaction, and being coached year-round, the students develop skills that last a lifetime.

The AiC team has shared their discovery far and wide, with volunteers and health professionals. David Chernof, MD, former AiC board president and professor at the David Geffen UCLA School of Medicine said, “This is a remarkable program, I highly recommend it.” General Colin Powell took notice: “I applaud your efforts to teach volunteers how to interact with people who are suffering… I am sharing your work with my staff.”

More than one thousand hospitals, one thousand hospices, two thousand churches, and several hundred nursing schools have used AiC programs. Santa Barbara City College School of Nursing has integrated the entire AiC Cultivating Compassion series into its new Memory Caregiver program that teaches nursing assistants how to build better relationships with patients who have dementia. Visiting Nurse and Hospice Care of Santa Barbara has trained its own team of mentors to teach the Cultivating Compassion program throughout the entire agency, to equip its staff with the most advanced skills for communicating compassion to the sick and dying.

Even the American Trauma Society in Washington DC used AiC expertise—to help teach trauma surgeons how to better communicate with the families of trauma victims in those crucial moments when they must deliver news right after surgery.

The most recent AiC program, Oxygen for Caregivers: Guarding Against Burnout, Sustaining Compassion, has been adopted by the international group of nurse educators, ELNEC (End-of-Life Nursing Education Consortium) who deliver programs in 80 countries. The AiC Oxygen for Caregivers is now a key part of the ELNEC train-the-trainer summits and so far has been presented in the U.S., China, Kenya, and Romania. “These resources are beautifully created to remind us of the importance of self-care” said Pam Malloy, ELNEC Director. “They are wonderful tools for all who care for people with serious illnesses and traumatic injuries.” Paul Auerbach, MD, professor of surgery in emergency medicine at Stanford University School of Medicine agreed: “Please keep up the good work, it is fascinating and much needed.” The deteriorating health of the people who work in health care is a growing problem throughout the world—they are in poorer health than most other occupations. Some of the more startling facts are that nursing assistants are more likely to be injured on the job than construction workers. Nurses are more likely to experience on-the-job violence than all other professions. Doctors too are affected: more than one in three physicians may be clinically depressed, and surgeons think of suicide as much as three times more often than the general population. Many trauma workers and social workers are physically assaulted at work, and those who work in palliative care have higher stress scores than patients newly diagnosed with breast cancer. 

Adventures in Caring is doing something about it. The Oxygen for Caregivers program builds resilience and helps to prevent burnout before it gets dangerous. The program helps caregivers recognize the warning signs early by discerning the different components of burnout such as compassion fatigue, vicarious trauma, and moral distress. This is crucial in the stress-informed environment that caregivers work in, where  the exhaustion of a heavy workload is compounded by traumatization—from witnessing, directly or indirectly, the tragedy and heartbreak of human suffering on a regular basis.
Susan Clark, RN of Visiting Nurse & Hospice Care noticed that her co-workers “gain increased resilience, a greater capacity to handle day-to-day stress, plus new insight into how to sustain their own well-being—which is improving their ability to give compassionate care to patients.”

“Oxygen for Caregivers is an exceptional program” said Jason Prystowsky, MD, emergency physician at Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital and medical director of the Santa Barbara City Fire Department. “It gives a systematic method of self-reflection so that we can recognize burnout in ourselves and our colleagues and take steps to heal. This program helps us take better care of ourselves and better care of each other, so that we can provide better care for our patients.”

From hospice care to trauma care, the ripple of compassion that began in Santa Barbara is spreading throughout the world. If you have ever wondered if love really has the power to heal, take a look at the AiC website. Then, if you want to help restore well-being in the seriously ill or injured—and in those who care for them—you can find out how at: